Help Without the Stigma

Justine Janis '11 (Photo provided)

January 23, 2018

By Heather Baker

Libraries of today are more than a place for books. They provide access to computers and WiFi, eBooks, meeting and study space, classes, resume assistance and much more. Believe it or not, the latest service libraries across the country are adding is the aid of a library social worker. In February of 2017, Justine Janis ’11, a licensed clinical social worker, was placed by Presence Health in the Evanston Public Library. At that time she was one of about 16 library social workers. Today she believes there are closer to 30 social workers operating out of libraries across the country.

Janis was placed at the Evanston library to help the many homeless and underprivileged library patrons. They often gather there looking for somewhere safe and warm and use the library’s computers and WiFi to look for jobs, or other services they need in order to provide for themselves or their families. The library is a safe place that feels “outside” the system that may have let them down in the past. Many people feel embarrassed to walk into a hospital or mental health facility or don’t know where to seek help for food stamps or other forms of aid. Janis feels her location removes the stigma of seeking mental health or social services. People who speak with Janis are not required to give their name and the services are free. The casual atmosphere also makes it easy for Janis to approach people who may be hesitant to seek help.

Another important aspect of her placement, is counseling the librarians on how to best manage a variety of situations they encounter with the patrons. Libraries are not always the “quiet” place many picture and librarians are not trained on how to handle mental health issues, learning disabilities or how to de-escalate a situation. Janis provides regular training sessions that help the staff be better prepared and feel safer. Training the librarians how to handle stressful situations has also reduced librarian burn out.

“It is exciting to be at the forefront of the library social work field. I enjoy getting to help mold what will hopefully become a long-term program at Evanston and other libraries as well.” Janis went on to say about her current position, “Hearing people’s life stories is a wonderful part of my job. I am honored to be trusted with what’s weighing on their mind. There are so many feel good moments. Like when a couple I’ve been working with get housing.” Janis often finds herself wondering if these outcomes would be possible without her placement in the library.

Janis’ advice to current students is to find something you are passionate about and don’t be afraid to follow it. Talk to your professors as much as you can about your career path. They will provide worthwhile advice that you might not get from supervisors. Foster these relationships as they will prove beneficial throughout your career.

When Janis came to Bradley she thought she wanted to become a counselor or psychologist. She relied on the mentoring of Dr. Tony Hermann and Dr. Timothy Koeltzow from the psychology department to help her narrow down her best career path. Through their discussions, she learned that social work was a blend of counseling and social justice, her two passions.

“Being a social worker has totally shaped who I am today. I’m a better person for knowing all of the remarkable people that I’ve worked with.”